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Thursday, 22 September 2016 07:26

Cancer Patient Arrested for Protesting TPP Says the Deal Is a "Death Sentence"

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heckscher32On September 21, Zahara Heckscher blocks entrance to a congressional office to protest TPP pharmaceutical provisions. (Photo: CANCERFAM.ORG )

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In February, I reported on the arrest of Zahara Heckscher, 51, who was protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) within the building entry to the massive pharmaceutical lobby in DC, PhRMA. Heckscher, who was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago, is experiencing its return in an advanced stage after remission.

Heckscher was cuffed and booked along with Hannah Lyon (who is 29 and has aggressive cervical cancer). Both protesters shouted that the TPP was a "death sentence" to many people with serious illnesses. This act of civil disobedience took place on World Cancer Day, February 4.

Yesterday, Heckscher was arrested again, this time while blocking the entrance to the Capitol office of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado). Heckscher used the time before she was arrested to urge Polis to save the lives of people in his district by taking a stand against passage of the TPP. Heckscher, the organization that she co-founded -- Cancer Families for Affordable Medicine -- and other advocacy groups concerned about affordable medicine have become increasingly worried that President Obama, the Republican leadership and Blue Dog Democrats will try to pass the TPP in a lame-duck session of Congress. This speculation is bolstered by a presidential election in which the candidates of the two largest parties are both on record opposing the TPP. Therefore, from a politically practical perspective, the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress may believe that the period between the November election and the swearing-in of a new president offers the best opportunity for the passage of the trade deal opposed by an increasing number of Americans for a variety of reasons.

For Heckscher, her conviction is born of both personal illness and her concern about others in the US and elsewhere. People will find medication more costly in all signatory nations of the TPP, because of its locking-in of long patents and drug monopolies. For instance, Heckscher now relies upon a medication that costs $54,000 a year. Her insurance company has denied her physician's request for the drug to slow down the cancer. The medication in question is available in some other nations as a generic, but the TPP would prohibit the sale of such generics during the course of a medication's patent throughout the TPP nations. In short, a TPP nation that might sell another brand of the $54,000 drug Heckscher needs for, let's say, $10,000, would be prohibited from doing so.

Also consider this, many people in the US -- particularly seniors -- get vast savings on certain drugs by ordering them from Mexico or Canada. They would find that option essentially closed under the TPP.  This is only one example of how the TPP -- by raising, in general, the cost of medicine in all the signatory nations (including Mexico and Canada) -- will economically impact people in the US who save money by getting some of their medications from nations without stringent patent enforcements.

Heckscher spoke with BuzzFlash on Thursday, after she paid a $50 fine at the Capitol police station and was released. She described the TPP's pharmaceutical provisions with this analogy:

There is a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality. The corporate promoters of the TPP and the White House want to entice us by describing it as having beautiful wrapping paper with nice friendly unicorns and a gold ribbon. But you can't be enticed by the attractive wrapping paper because when you open the box, it is really ugly inside, as far as Big Pharma. They get patent guarantees, monopolies, weak enforcement on predatory pricing, and more.

Write about public policy issues can often feel abstract. However, in talking with Heckscher, I felt how pressing so many of these issues are to real people with life-threatening conditions. One of the issues that Heckscher brought up in our interview was the promising development of biologic medical treatment of cancer (as compared to chemical-based pills, liquids and technologies). Heckscher lamented that these new cancer medications and immunotherapies (which could also have applications for other diseases) would have high locked-in prices set under pharmaceutical industry-written standards in the TPP.

The Cancer Families for Affordable Medicine (CFAM) website has a page on the potential deadly details of the TPP and medicine. They include:

  • The TPP would reward pharmaceutical companies for investing in legal maneuvers to extend patents, such as tweaking dosing regimens, called “evergreening patents,” rather than for investing in new lifesaving medicines.

  • The TPP would allow foreign pharmaceutical companies to sue our government outside our courts in private tribunals over public health policies such as certain policies designed to keep prices down.

  • The TPP would impede Congress from enacting sensible reforms to reduce medicine expenditures through the ACA, Medicare and Medicaid, resulting in higher taxes and higher insurance premiums, even for healthy people.

CFAM concludes that if the TPP passes Congress and the legislatures of other nations,

Production of affordable, life-saving generic and biosimilar medicines will be delayed. More cancer patients will be shut out of treatment. Taxes and insurance premiums will have to go up to cover the obscene costs for emerging biologic drugs, many of which costs over $100,000 per year.

For Heckscher, these are immediate, direct issues that can mean life or death. Currently, she is being denied a biologic treatment by her insurance company. She was only able to begin treatment with another medication by volunteering for the clinical trial. Big Pharma's control over access to life-prolonging medication is only going to become more expensive and more difficult if the TPP is passed.

Heckscher told BuzzFlash at Truthout, "They call the TPP a 'free trade treaty' to market it, but it really is a higher-profit treaty for drug companies when you look at the details."

Not to be reposted without the permission of BuzzFlash